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Remembering a Duke City dance-walking pioneer

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Life was simpler, wasn’t it, when we had Sabrina Vanjeffdenjohn high-stepping and whooping around.

Remember her? She was the 50-year-old woman with the dark bubbles of hair, hot pink spandex and a Walkman clutched in her ever-gesticulating hands.

Maybe you saw her, dancing to the beat of her own drummer along the jogging path around Albuquerque Academy in the early 1990s. She was Prancercising when Prancercising wasn’t cool.

But where a typical Prancercise devotee trots and skips a bit, Vanjeffdenjohn flew. She flounced, she spun, she hooted, she hustled and high-kicked and jazz-handed her way down Wyoming NE with untrammeled (some might say unhinged) ecstasy. She was part Mary Lou Retton, part Christopher Walken, a woman who truly danced like no one was watching.

Oh, but we were.

We had to. She was mesmerizing and, yes, a bit unnerving. Vanjeffdenjohn would often get so caught up in the music that she’d pirouette right out in front of an oncoming car or polka backward over the feet of an unsuspecting jogger.

“When I’m dance-walking, I think with the planets,” she told my former Tribune colleague Lynn Bartels in a 1993 column. “Not like aliens, but just the idea of the universe and what composes it.”

Well, of course she did.

I started thinking about Vanjeffdenjohn after Estancia writer Julie Carter asked whether I knew what had become of this lithe and loopy spirit. The topic of Vanjeffdenjohn was also inexplicably blowing up on “Remember in Albuquerque when …,” a Facebook page dedicated to the nostalgia of the city.

“Whether you saw her as an eccentric, a crazy woman or wished you could be more like her, she put a smile on the faces of anyone who watched her dance down the path,” Facebook fan Steve Gutierrez wrote.

“Wonder if she ever knew how many of us loved her spirit,” added Cheryl Wadleigh.

So I started searching for Albuquerque’s dancing queen.

I contacted Suzy Frick, the woman who had posted on YouTube an April 1, 1993, video of Vanjeffdenjohn, complete with “Flashdance … What a Feeling” as musical accompaniment.

“I wish I could help,” Frick said. “Never knew her name.”

A fuzzy screen capture of a YouTube video taken in 1993 shows Sabrina Vanjeffdenjohn during her daily dance-walking routine around the jogging path of the Albuquerque Academy. (Source: YouTube)

A fuzzy screen capture of a YouTube video taken in 1993 shows Sabrina Vanjeffdenjohn during her daily dance-walking routine around the jogging path of the Albuquerque Academy. (Source: YouTube)

Oh yes, that name. Vanjeffdenjohn, as it turns out, had once been Sharon Rae Reed, an office worker at the local Social Security office. In 1991, she went to court to have her name officially changed for what she told Bartels were “metaphysical reasons.”

According to the column, she had chosen the name Sabrina because a coworker thought she looked like one. For her last name, she tossed together the names of men she had known and asked a stranger at a gas station which combination she liked. Vanjeffdenjohn won.

That sense of serendipity and joie de vivre had been her hallmark since she survived a near-death experience with a cultist version of a macrobiotic diet, she told Bartels. From then on, she embraced life and danced, one hour each day, rain or shine.

“I’m trying to make the outside look as beautiful as I feel inside,” she said.

Sometime after that interview – no one is sure quite when – the dancing stopped. Perhaps she had moved on to another planet; perhaps she had simply decided it was time to hang up her dancing shoes.

Eventually, I found her but not in the way I had hoped. The Ohio Cremation and Memorial Society reported that she had died in Worthington, Ohio, in 2010, just shy of her 67th birthday. No cause of death and no next of kin were listed.

She danced out of our lives as quickly and as quirkily as she had danced into them.

“Too bad she can’t know how much inspiration and how many smiles she gave to so many people,” Donna Brown Slaten wrote on Facebook. “If she could tell us something today, I think it would be to be yourself, be happy and get out and exercise!”

I’ve noticed lately that public dancing has become something of a craze, and perhaps that’s because as the world gets weirder the need to find something blissful to do gets stronger. Like dancing.

Last week, hundreds of people around the globe posted online their own street-dancing videos to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ infectious “Happy” as part of the U.N. Foundation’s International Day of Happiness.

NBC news guy Ben Aaron’s recently released video of himself dancing on the sidewalks of New York with smiling strangers is one of his most popular.

Vanjeffdenjohn was a pioneer in all of that. She didn’t care what people thought about her public displays of affection for life. She danced.

In the end, she accomplished what she set out to do: She made the outside look as beautiful as she felt inside.

More than two decades later, she still is.

I suspect she is shaking her groove thing right now with the angels, whooping away.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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